By seven, the Soda Shop had filled with the morning breakfast crowd. Nick looked around and gestured for another refill. After eating a breakfast loaded with all the bad stuff that tasted so freaking good and his brain was properly caffeinated, he could think. Maybe even tolerate the woman sitting across the table.
It wasn’t that Allison wasn’t attractive. Hell, with curly reddish-blond hair and brown eyes sparkling with humor and a sugar sprinkle of freckles across her elegant nose, she was cute as a new puppy. Their personalities just clashed—that was the problem.
But her lips. Whoa. She had a tiny smear of strawberry preserves on her bottom lip. Could he resist? Hell, no.
He reached across and swiped the smear off her soft lower lip with his thumb. Without thinking, he put his thumb in his mouth and sucked off the jelly.
Her gaze widened, and her chin dropped. “Ah.” Her neck and cheeks flushed a pretty pink.
What must she be thinking? He never meant to touch her, much less her soft lips. But he’d wanted to touch her. Oh yeah. But he shouldn’t. Technically, she was his client. And his employer’s little sis.
“Sorry. I’m so used to wiping my son’s mouth like that. I wasn’t thinking.”
“No problem.” She snatched up a napkin and scrubbed her lower lip. “Did I get it all?”
“No, I did.” Her gaze widened at his words. Good. Her slight confusion touched and pleased him.
Man. He couldn’t keep flirting with his boss’s sister. When he’d stalked out of divorce court, hadn’t he sworn off relationships? Yeah, Eva had walked away with his son and the house. And a month after the divorce was final, she’d married his captain.
“What’s the matter, Nick? Where’d you go?”
He shrugged and cut his gaze to see her concerned expression. “No place I’m likely to go again.” He glanced at his watch. “Look, I have to meet a client at ten, then I get to see my son and take him to a ballgame. Later this evening, after the game, we’ll come by—assuming it’s okay if I bring him along—and get with Justin. We’ll run a background check on this Tom guy.”
“The more, the merrier.” She gave him a satisfied smile. “So it’s probably a good thing I woke you up early.”
“Yeah. I’m just not a morning person. Once I have my coffee,” he said with a wry expression, “I’m halfway human.”
Allison wrinkled her nose. “That might be up for some interpretation.”
“Yeah.” He motioned for the check, and the waitress brought it over. “Thanks.” He left a tip on the table and stood. “Hate to run. Don’t want to disappoint my kid.”
Elbows on the table and fingers laced together, she scowled up at him. “You didn’t have to grab the check. I’m perfectly capable of paying for our breakfast. Breakfast was my idea, after all.”
“No problem. Technically, you’re my client. I’ll expense it.”
“So you’re taking my case…officially?”
He nodded. “Pro bono too, since you’re part of the family.”
“Is that a problem?”
“No, just didn’t expect my first real client to be the boss’s little sister.” He leaned in, lowering his tone. “You remember, the cute little gal who flashed her boobs at me at the old swimming hole.”
As he expected, she started to rise from the booth. He shot her a mischievous smile, delaying her flight. “The old swimming hole? That was the Brady’s pool. And I didn’t flash you. I lost my top. I believe that would qualify as an accident.”
“Yeah. But your cheeks get so pink, I couldn’t resist.”
“So I’ve been told, once or twice.”
She glared, then her expression softened and a tiny smile pulled at the corner of her luscious lips. “I’m sure you have. Thank you for taking my case, even if I am the boss’s sister and you didn’t have much choice.”
“My pleasure. Besides it’ll give me even more pleasure, ’cause I’m gonna prove you’re wrong about there being a hospital connection.”
“Sounds like a challenge.” She reached for her purse and slid from the booth. “We’ll see who’s right and who’s wrong.” Then a cloud of uncertainty crossed over her face. “It really doesn’t matter which one of us is right. What matters is we find Meryl before…” She faltered, as if afraid to verbalize her fears.
Nick nodded. Fears once voiced had to be faced. Sooner or later, Meryl Litton would be found. More than likely it was already too late to save her or her unborn child.
She looked up at him with the sheen of unshed tears in her eyes; her bottom lip trembled. “It’s not going to be good, is it?”
He shut his for a second, then opened them and met her direct, if fearful, gaze. “No.”
Eager to get Allison outside in the fresh air and away from the curious onlookers, he scooped her in one arm, pulling her close to his side. “Come on.” As they brushed by the cashier’s counter, he left the check and a twenty. “Keep the change.”
He opened the door and allowed her to exit.
Allison sniffed. “Guess you’ll expense that too?”
“Not all of it. Just wanted to get you outside. Thought you needed some fresh air.”
“I’m all right. I think about the baby she was going to have, and it just feels like little pieces of my heart are ready to crumble away.” She sniffed again. “She would’ve made a wonderful mother.”
They ambled down the sidewalk. He hoped Allison would never have to see some of the things he’d seen. The darkest side of mankind. Though how the hell how anyone who was supposed to be a part of the human race could do some of the things he’d seen, he’d never know.
Depravity. A mere word couldn’t begin to describe the bloodied, desecrated, rotting remains found in woods, buried under logs, eaten by insects. The children taken by predators… They were the worst. He hoped there was a special place in hell for child predators.
“Nick?” Allison had stopped and stood staring at him, her gaze wide with concern. “Are you all right?”
Snap out of it, man. “Yeah, sure. Where’s your car?”
She nodded to the silver Camry. “This one. Need a lift back to your apartment?”
Not willing to infect his mood of gloom and doom on her any further, he shook his head. “It’s not far. Coupla blocks from here.”
“Okay. Thanks for breakfast and…everything.” She walked around to unlock her car door.
“I’ll see you later—when I see Justin.”
He nodded. Would she go back to the hospital and do more snooping? “Please. Just go home and stay out of trouble till then.”
Planting her feet wide apart, she set her hands on her hips. “Is that an order?”
“I’m the detective. You’re the client. I detect. You wait for my intel.”
“So you think this is how it’s going to be?”
“This is how I know it’s gonna be.” Without another word, he took off down the street toward his apartment. Dammit. Why couldn’t she take a backseat and keep her freckled nose out of the detecting side of things? There was enough pain ahead for her as it was. The last thing he needed was her digging into something at the hospital.
What if she was right and there was a hospital connection to her friend’s disappearance? If Allison got in someone’s way, she was risking harm or worse. She was taking a hell of a chance.